Help Your Kids Avoid False Information Online: Get them “Unmotivated.”

critical thinking Jan 19, 2024
Kids given false information

If you’re a parent today, or even just a concerned citizen, you have every right to worry about children’s exposure to false information on social media. To give you a sense of just how problematic the situation might be, a recent Pew Research study found that 97% of teens report being on the internet daily, and 46% say they use it “almost constantly.” Among the different platforms, TikTok, Instagram, and Snapchat are all in very high use, with roughly two-thirds of teens (13-17) on those platforms. Facebook, which used to be one of the top, is now much lower than it was a decade ago, falling from 71% of teens as users to just 32%. And Twitter only has about one-quarter of teens on its platform. But the big winner is YouTube, with 95% of teens using its platform and app.

Do Kids Know What Info Online is Credible?

While it is impossible to know just how much false information young people see across their various internet apps, it’s safe to say that there’s too much of it. And while everyone, adults included, need better training at separating valuable information from trash, the same goes double, or triple, for young people. As the authors of one study put it, “young people growing up in a digital world need updated knowledge, skills, and attitudes to use new media wisely.”

In fact, they go on to state that “a growing number of studies highlight how young people struggle to determine credibility in digital environments” such as the internet, social media, YouTube, and other platforms. And they further add that “students may struggle to find and verify relevant information online, since they confuse popularity rankings with quality, for instance, they tend to click on top-listed hits on Google” rather than taking the time to reason carefully about the difference between what’s popular and what’s thoughtful or reliable.

Unfortunately, too many parents falsely believe that because their kids have grown up as “digital natives” in an online world, they possess natural “information literacy”—the ability to discern reliable internet sources from unreliable ones—as well as natural defenses to false information. But the fact that children believe that they can spot the difference between what’s real and false is actually part of the problem. The fact is that multiple studies show us that “it is evident that young people may not be as skilled as they think they are at navigating online information.”

Why is it Difficult to Know the Difference Between False and Credible Info?

While there are numerous reasons that young people cannot successfully recognize the difference between false and credible information online, the lack of appropriate critical thinking skills, and the determination to apply those critical thinking skills to information literacy, might be the biggest. Why is that so? There are a number of reasons, but one reason is the dangerous contrast between motivated thinking and flexible thinking.

Motivated Thinking

Motivated thinking is “thinking” in the service of an existing belief, such as when someone believes the earth is flat and then judges information based on how well it conforms to that idea. Subconsciously, their brains try to defend their existing flat-earth belief through biases such as confirmation bias and belief perseverance. Information that supports the notion that the earth is flat will be seen as true (whether it is true or not), and information that refutes the idea that the earth is flat will be seen as false.

Multiple studies have shown that motivated thinking, which again is thinking in defense of an existing viewpoint, is particularly problematic when it comes to politics. Citing multiple studies, researchers summarize some of motivated reasoning as follows: First, that “voters are more inclined to support a preferred political candidate when presented with negative information.” Believing their preferred candidate must be good overall, their brains rush to defend the candidate more vigorously not despite the negative information, but because of it.

Second, when it comes to politics, people will “forcefully debate arguments that are inconsistent with their political ideology but passively and uncritically accept arguments that support their political ideology.” In other words, no matter your political stance, if someone makes an argument that aligns with it, you’re more likely to accept it without much critical reasoning, and if someone makes an argument against your stance, you’re also more likely to reject it, still without much critical reasoning.

Worse than that, there’s also evidence that motivated reasoning will lead people to use whatever analytic reasoning skills they possess to contrive ways to justify beliefs that’d otherwise be objectively false. Thus, when motivated enough, people will actually think their way deeper into false beliefs rather than change their thinking to align with new facts.

Of course, the dangers of motivated thinking doesn’t only apply to politics, nor just to people who are old enough to vote. So, to prevent the harm of motivated thinking, teach your children to exercise flexible thinking instead. Much as it sounds, flexible thinking is the ability to recognize one’s beliefs without being attached to them. You might think of it like taking all beliefs with at least one grain of salt rather than believing anything too rigidly. Thus, flexible thinking teaches young people to maintain an element of skepticism about all of their beliefs, and thus to welcome information that shifts their beliefs.

Flexible Thinking

Unfortunately, some people struggle with embracing flexible thinking because it seems to make it more difficult to believe anything at all. If we’re skeptical of everything, how can we believe anything? And if we’re truly supposed to be skeptical of everything, shouldn’t we then also be skeptical of being skeptical? While it’s easy to chase flexible thinking to its extremes, a good way to keep it in check is simply to balance it, on the whole, against the preponderance of evidence for a given idea.

Some beliefs require more grains of salt than others. Gravity, for example, is a very well-established scientific idea. While physicists haven’t fully discovered the source of gravity or the precise nature of its function, you can nevertheless be assured that if you throw something up, it’s coming back down. Gravity exists. We don’t need a great deal of skepticism about it.

As a point of contrast, if not one of extreme contrast, consider a notion that popped up on the internet this week. Suddenly, it was being “reported” that renowned physicist Stephen Hawking enjoyed seeing “undressed midgets solve complex equations on a too-high-up chalkboard.” While it wouldn’t have been impossible that the story was true, it’s certainly one that deserved to be met with considerable skepticism. And, to be clear, it wasn’t true. It was just a lie that someone told that, because of its fanciful and salacious nature, ended up garnering a considerable amount of reposting.

What Can You Do?

So, if you want to help fortify your children against false information online, if not also just help them become stronger critical thinkers for life, teach them not to be motivated thinkers. It’s not difficult to impress upon them the notion that good critical thinking isn’t about what we already think, but rather about being skeptical even of the ideas we already take to be “true.” It’s also not hard to help them understand how to be flexible thinkers who treat some ideas with more skepticism than others.

There’s just not much room for skepticism anymore about the fact that climate change is occurring, but that Taylor Swift is only dating Travis Kelce for new material, or that Taylor Swift is secretly dating his mother, or that Taylor Swift’s real motivation is to distract Kelce so that the Chiefs lose, or that Taylor Swift just quit singing and donated all of her money to prison inmates, or … well, you get the idea.

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